Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Virtues and Vices versus Good and Bad Desires

Let us try this new project.

I wish to begin by examining Rosalind Hursthouse’s thesis as described in “Normative Virtue Ethics,” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

The big difference, of course, is the difference between “a virtuous agent” and “having good desires and lacking bad desires.”

Hursthouse, in talking about virtues, has in mind the classic list: kindness, honesty, charity, justness, and the like. We may question whether some traits - for example, bravery, curiosity - count as virtues. A terrorist can be brave, and a gossip can be curious.

When I talk about good and bad desires, I talk about propositional attitudes. These are mental states that can be expressed in the form “agent desires that P.” Pete desires that his children are healthy and happy, Mary desires to be spoken well of by others, Susan desires that she become an astronaut.”

Aversions, on this model, can be expressed as “agent desires that not-P”. Pat desires that he not be in pain, Molly desires that she not speak in public, Sam desires that he not eat spinach.

Furthermore, desires provide agents with motivating reasons to realize states of affairs in which the proposition that identifies the object of the desire is true. A person with a desire that their child be healthy and happy is a person with a motivating reason to realize any state of affairs in which the proposition, "my children are healthy and happy" is true.

These differences may be superficial only. That would be the case if one of these systems could be reduced to the other. If "honesty" could be reduced to "an aversion to telling lies" and "parental affection" to "a desire that one's children are healthy and happy", and the same can be provided for all of the virtues, then the two systems lack any substantive difference. They are two ways of saying the same thing.

If this is the case, then every problem that has been identified for Hursthouse's thesis is a problem for my thesis as well.

There is, I think, one important difference between Hursthouse's virtues and vices and my own. This concerns the way in which a trait is identified as a virtue or vice on the one hand, or a good or bad desire on the other.

A good desire, I argue, is one that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote as a universal desire. To illustrate this concept, I take an example of a community of beings who each have an aversion to their own pain - and no other desire or aversion. They also have the capacity to create desires and aversions in others using praise and condemnation. Each person in this community has a reason to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others - and to do so by praising those who refrain from those actions and condemning those who engage in such actions. They have reason, in other words, to call actions that tend to cause pain to others "wrong" and painless alternatives "right" (since "wrong" and "right" are statements of condemnation and praise respectively).

Virtue theorists tend to identify the virtues as having some type of intrinsic value - an inherent "ought to be ness". Another view, perhaps attributable to Aristotle, is the view that a virtue has value as a means to contribute to the agent's own eudaemonea or flourishing - which itself has intrinsic value.

The theory that I am defending has no place for intrinsic values. The aversion to personal pain in this example is an evolved disposition - caused by a nervous system that evolution has engineered to produce a particular structure that has kept one's ancestors alive and reproducing - producing offspring that are themselves capable of successful reproduction. It has nothing to do with "intrinsic value". In my example, the evolved disposition to avoid pain provides the motivating reason to create in others an aversion to causing pain to others. "Intrinsic value" plays no role.

Yet, none of this argues for an essential difference between Hursthouse's virtues and vices and my own good and bad desires. It does not argue against the thesis that one can reduce "honesty" to "having an aversion to lying to others" or "friendship" as "having a desire for the company of another and an aversion to their misfortune."

And, as I said above, if such a reduction is possible (or to the degree that it is possible) any enemy of Hursthouse's is an enemy of mine.

"Enemy" may be too strong a word . . . but you get the point. I will likely have to answer objections to her thesis as if they were objections to my own.

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